John Blanke’s Dual Lives
Writing historical fiction is – if you’ll forgive the pun – all about filling in the blanks. In the case of John Blanke, there are many, which leaves much room for speculation. In considering how to include him in my upcoming series set at the early court of Henry VIII, I was drawn to the idea of liminality: of a life lived in a space between categories of race and class. John was a paid servant, and thus of higher social standing than plenty of his white contemporaries. But it doesn’t follow that his life was an easy one. In early modern England, appearance was everything. A gentleman looked and dressed like a gentleman; a king looked and dressed like a king; a wicked man was hunchbacked and dark; and a wicked woman was old and crooked. If people failed to reflect outwardly what they were inwardly, society risked lapsing into disorder. What, then, did early moderns make of black people who were apt to be dressed in the respectable clothing of their English rank or in the foreign garb used to counterfeit the exotic?
It seems, in the main, that black people were treated as novelties in early modern British courts: as talking points or ornaments. Thus, whilst they might make better livings than many, they were still very much at a personal disadvantage (those who weren’t given ironical names were often still defined by their colour: as ‘Blakemoors’ and ‘Blackmoors’). They were ‘strangers’ – a state of being which became increasingly distrusted. Further, the period prized whiteness as a hallmark of beauty, and associated blackness (and ‘sable’, ‘darkness’, ‘duskiness’) with vice and ugliness. This longstanding association has been passed down to us: we still speak and write of ‘black looks’ and ‘dark looks’, and the colour white continues to be associated with virtue and purity. Certainly, there were outright racists in the period, as, unfortunately, they exist in every period. More subtle, however, was the casual and unintended racism of dressing people up and parading them as showpieces and exotic ‘others’. Lucrative this must have been – but pleasant in a world which was all about fitting into distinct categories?
This is what interested me. What did it feel like to look different from the majority, and to have your difference, on the one hand, your source of prestige and, on the other, a reminder that you lacked the heritage that powered the country’s class system? It seems to me that John very likely lived a dual life: in the Court, he was privileged and feted as an exotic servant; in the City, he might well have been prey to the growing discontent towards the stranger. Neither of these, I think, would have been easy to deal with. What John must have counted on to see him through was sheer strength of personality. In creatively constructing John – and his mixed-race, fictional son, Anthony – this would be the profile by which I sought to explore the challenges and experiences of being – and facing being – different in the Henrician Court and the City.
Steven Veerapen was born in Glasgow and raised in Paisley. Pursuing an interest in the sixteenth century, he was awarded a first-class Honours degree in English, focussing his dissertation on representations of Henry VIII’s six wives. He then received a Masters in Renaissance studies, and a Ph.D. investigating Elizabethan slander.
He writes historical fiction set in the early modern period, covering the reigns of Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, and James VI and I; additionally, he has written nonfiction studies of Mary Queen of Scots’ relationship with her brother; Elizabeth I and her last favourite, the Earl of Essex; and an academic study of slander and sedition in the reign of Elizabeth.
Steven’s new series of novels will begin with the publication of Of Blood Descended in May 2022. Set at the court of the young Henry VIII in the 1520s, the series introduces Anthony Blanke, the fictional, mixed-race son of historical figure John Blanke (one of the first black people recorded as living in Tudor London) and an unknown wife. Steven’s novels will explore this well-known period from a new perspective: that of a figure on the margins, neither black nor white, not quite part of the English system nor outside of it, and from a writer who himself draws on the rich storytelling heritage of a Scottish mother and Mauritian father.